Visa rules relaxed

In a move to enhance US economic competitiveness, the State Department in February extended the period for visa security clearances for non-US citizens working in "sensitive areas," such as chemistry, pharmacology, and engineering.

Mar 28, 2005
Suzanne Rostler
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In a move to enhance US economic competitiveness, the State Department in February extended the period for visa security clearances for non-US citizens working in "sensitive areas," such as chemistry, pharmacology, and engineering. In the past, students and scientists had been required to renew their visas each year. Now, students can remain in the United States for four years, working scientists for two years, and visiting scientists for one year before renewing security clearances.

The scientific, academic, and business communities lauded the decision as one that will enhance cutting-edge research and benefit the US economy. But these sources also caution that more must be done to continue to attract scientists to US universities.

According to a new survey by the Washington, DC-based Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), international applications to US graduate programs will decline for the second consecutive year. CGS estimates such applications to US graduate schools will fall 5% for the upcoming academic year, compared with a 28% decline a year ago.

The trend could have long-term implications, says Heath Brown, director of research and policy analysis at CGS. "We know international students make major contributions to engineering and science, (which are) very, very important to our economic competitiveness and national security."

Security clearance is just part of the problem, says Wendy White, director of the board on international scientific organizations at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC. Growing competition from universities in Europe and Asia, a $100 nonrefundable visa processing fee, and the perception that the United States is hostile to international scholars in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have also contributed to a drop in admissions. Still, the United States has made "incredible progress," White says. In the past two years the average wait time for general visa clearance fell to 14 days from one year. That change, coupled with the recent decision to extend security clearances, "is a step toward making the US a more welcoming place for scientists."

Sandy Boyd, vice president of human resources policy with the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington, DC, says the move is "a good thing for US businesses to have the best and brightest minds studying here."

The security clearance (Visas Mantis) program was created in 1998 to stop the illegal flow of technology outside the United States. After Sept. 11, 2001, additional barriers were added for those obtaining visas. According to the Washington, DC-based Institute of International Education, the Visas Mantis program contributed to a 2.4% drop of enrolled foreign students in the United States in the 2003–2004 academic year, the first time since the 1970s that enrollment declined.